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What I Learned in Jerusalem

by Nikki Hodgson Nov 6, 2013

I have unfolded and refolded your letter a dozen times. You are going to the West Bank and you want me to tell you everything I learned, everything I wish I had known. “Write as if you could go back in time and tell yourself what to do differently,” you said.

I knew so little; I am ashamed to admit it now. I sift through the litter of my memory to find you something worth remembering, but I only remember the way Amira stood in front of a class of college students trying to elicit discussion, to get them to talk about how they were feeling as Israeli jets swept over Gaza.

In Bethlehem, there were tourism posters hanging in the checkpoint. The soldier waved me through and then stopped Salim, insisting that he remove his shoes, his belt, his jacket.

In Tel Aviv, with resentment simmering in my chest, I walked into a bar for a drink. A young man sat down next to me and accusations streamed out of my mouth. He sipped his beer and stared out the window.

“Five years ago, a suicide bomber attacked this bar.”

I rubbed my hand across my face, exhausted.

On the phone, over stuttering Skype sessions, in long, drawn-out emails, I have tried my best to offer practical advice, to answer questions on how to prepare for checkpoints and soldiers and political instability. I know I should tell you how to get to the bus station in Beit Jala, but I prefer to remember the way Amira’s grandmother leaned over my coffee cup, a tiny porcelain cup on a silver tray. “You have a white heart,” she said, one finger pointing to the shapes in the coffee grounds. Amira translated.

Yoav smiled when I told him this, but his features became stern when I read him articles from Haaretz. “More settlements,” I sighed. “This is absurd, a deliberate provocation.” And he remained silent, habitually aloof. “I don’t want to meet your activist friends,” he said. “They will only try and fight.”

I learned to change the subject, to point to words in Hebrew and wrestle with religious questions. “One more time,” I’d say, “explain to me this business of toveling.” He’d roll his eyes, but he always laughed.

I had no interest in taking a side. But then there was so much tragedy.

When I returned from Jerusalem and Amira asked if I had a good time, she wasn’t interested in hearing about quiet cafes and expansive libraries. She wanted to know why she was divided from this place, why she spent her childhood hiding from tanks, why she was born into a role she never wanted to play. We climbed up to the roof and she lit a cigarette, staring silently at the Har Homa settlement.

There are so many logistics, so many subtle ways to slip into the hubbub of the old city and make yourself belong. I became a student of grief, struggling to negotiate it at every turn. It transforms some into activists, some into soldiers. Others become apathetic. I am none of those.

I went to study the environment, to revive the sewage-saturated waters of the Jordan River. I had no interest in taking a side. But then there was so much tragedy. So many knuckles tinged white, premature wrinkling around the eyes. Sadness, desperation, and fury seeped in at every point. My bones felt saturated with it. I could not sleep.

There were so many points to my naivete, so many nuances I had not anticipated. For weeks we went without water, relying on the cistern underneath the house or the rain barrels on the roof. A bandanna tied over my mouth and nose, a pitiful barricade against the dust of demolition.

In rooms hazy with cigarette smoke, acrid with the smell of burnt coffee, I listened to reports of arrests, detention, attacks. An onslaught of bitter tirades. When those jets fly low and heavy, when you hear the pop pop pop of gunfire, you do not care about the nuances or the complexity. You only hate whatever is responsible for the noise, the panic, the vulnerability.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable. It’s so much easier to jump to firm conclusions about the families who move into settlements, the boys who throw rocks, the soldiers who bulldoze homes, the activists who help rebuild those homes, the men imprisoned, the men who imprison.

It becomes hard not to resent the multitude of opinions. Then it becomes easier not to know.

Maybe you will lean against Jerusalem’s old city walls and search that threadbare sky for some sort of answer. I leaned against those same beige stones listening to Glenn Beck lament the injustice done against Israelis at the hands of Palestinians. The deliberate one-sidedness of that speech caused me an indescribable amount of anguish, but Youval waved it off, gesturing with a cigarette. “Jerusalem’s specialty is hosting madmen,” he said. “You learn to distinguish between the prophets and the raving lunatics.”

Amira and I sat watching the sun come up over the Dead Sea when I told her what Youval had said. She nodded her agreement. I looked toward Egypt.

When Moses led the liberated Israelites through the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s army chased after them. An entire army washed into the sea. I’ve often wondered about the families of those soldiers. Nobody ever writes about them, how their days must have stretched forward into a desert’s horizon, an infinity knot of grief.

There are so many books to read and opinions to sift through. You can understand every nuanced agreement of the Oslo Accords, the British Mandate, the political infighting of Hamas and Fatah, the demands and disputes of the Knesset. You can argue Herzl and Rabin, pick through the many layers of Zionism, the Turkish and Jordanian occupation, the divide between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. You can slip into the prose of Adania Shibli, S. Yizhar, Fouzi El-Asmar, David Grossman. There will always be one more story you haven’t read, one more side you haven’t considered.

The temptation is to become incensed, to let your politics prejudice your compassion. Bite your tongue, swallow your words. Listen. You know nothing. The sooner you accept this, the easier it will become. There is so much pressure to pass judgment and I was so determined to be angry. I wish I could have told myself to relinquish this determination, to be furious with injustice, but gentle with people.

The world has grown tired of this story, impatient with waiting for it to play out. You might grow tired of it too.

You will figure out how to find the bus station or slip in and out of checkpoints because you have to figure those things out, but you cannot know the contents of a person’s heart and nobody will tell you until it’s too late and you’ve blundered your way into the festering wounds of personal loss. Grief forces us all into the same position. You have to learn to be silent until you begin to hear the things that can’t be said.

There is a keffiyeh folded neatly next to my Tanakh. Visitors to my apartment point out the incongruity of the two, but I shrug and give a half-smile. Their proximity in my life will be interpreted however the world sees fit. In my heart, at least, there’s room enough for both. I’ve always wanted to believe in something better even while realizing how unrealistic that might be.

Last week I walked past a globe on a store shelf and I spun it, running my finger against its varnished surface. Without thinking, I pushed my finger down when I saw Jerusalem. There was no West Bank or Gaza.

The world has grown tired of this story, impatient with waiting for it to play out. You might grow tired of it too. It might fracture your bones and seep into the hairline cracks. The world has jumped to its own conclusions; I challenge you not to. Your mind is not as open as you imagine and the people who touch your heart are never the ones you expect. As soon as you learn to cry, you’ll realize how necessary it is to laugh.

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